Monday, September 25, 2000

The Canard of Democratic Peace, Jerusalem Report

The Canard of Democratic Peace

The Jerusalem Report


Gidon D. Remba

September, 25, 2000

With Israel and the Palestinians having failed to consummate a final peace accord at Camp David, we are witnessing a grand revival of the nostrum that only democracies can establish genuine peace. Its new high priest is none other than revered human rights icon Natan Sharansky. While confessing that he does not wish Israel to rule over another people, Sharansky insists that Israel should withhold concessions for peace treaties from repressive undemocratic regimes like Arafat's. "A country that respected the rights of its own people would also respect the rights of its neighbors," Sharansky has explained in the Wall Street Journal. "A repressive regime would always need internal and external enemies to justify its policies, and would therefore always pose a threat to peace…[and] eventually threaten the security of my people." Israel, he maintains, must link its concessions to the degree of liberalization of its neighbors: no democracy, no peace.

While this pithy slogan is beguiling, Sharansky has got it backwards. Reaching a historic compromise with the Palestinians is no guarantee that they will democratize, but obstructing the peace process is the surest way to perpetuate the conditions which make for internal repression, fanaticism and violence. Nor is the Jewish state itself immune to this dynamic. As long as Israel has remained in a state of siege, it has fallen short of granting full civic equality to its Palestinian Arab citizens, despite their formal equality before the law. Only in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords has the country undergone a quiet, still incomplete, revolution in its treatment of its Arab minority, and towards West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. Meanwhile, the smug self-congratulation about Israeli democracy has obscured the fact that keeping Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty means flouting the democratic choices of some 200,000 Palestinian Arabs in East Jerusalem, who have long refused Israeli citizenship and rarely vote in Israeli municipal elections.

The tactic of linking international agreements to an adversary's human rights performance which helped free him from a Soviet prison camp has led Sharansky astray in Israel. Had he served in Menachem Begin's government twenty-two years ago, his logic would have compelled him to oppose a peace treaty with Egypt. Egypt has often been ranked as unfree by Freedom House, an organization that promotes democracy and human rights worldwide, with an abysmal political rights index of 6 on a scale of 1 to 7, among the lowest in the world. Its civil liberties index hovers between 5 and 6 out of 7. Egypt’s imprisonment last month, of Saad al-Din Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American critic of government electoral fraud and promoter of voting rights, is only the latest example of its rank disdain for democratic openness. Had Sharansky's way prevailed at the first Camp David summit, it is doubtful that Israel would have enjoyed the prosperity and freedom from full-scale war that peace with Egypt has provided for two decades.

What's more, the character of a regime is no indication of its propensity to wage aggressive war in pursuit of economic and geopolitical interests, regional or global power. The United States was a great liberal constitutional democracy, in the midst of a civil rights revolution to boot, when it was at the apex of prosecuting a war in Vietnam that even former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara concedes was unjust.

The argument that Arab states will not maintain lasting peaceful relations with Israel until they become liberal democracies is also the rhetorical stock in trade of Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud leader Ariel Sharon. But this bromide of "democratic peace" has been called into serious question by many students of political history—most recently Princeton political scientist Joanne Gowa, in Ballots and Bullets: The Elusive Democratic Peace. Gowa shows that both democratic and nondemocratic governments have demonstrated a preference for nonviolent methods of conflict resolution, thanks not to their moral appeal but to the relative cost of war versus peaceful resolution of disputes. She has established that the absence of war between liberal democracies is limited only to the Cold War period after 1945, and is better explained by a convergence of strategic political interests than by common domestic political norms.

It follows that democratic and autocratic countries may well form enduring relations in which conflicts are resolved without force if there is a sufficiently robust network of interests reinforcing such conduct. Squelching a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the name of democracy is a cynical and tragic mistake. Sharansky, and those who will follow his lead, would have Israel pay a dear price for continued worship of shibboleths.